Guest opinion: BLM’s new White River lease plan out of balance |

Guest opinion: BLM’s new White River lease plan out of balance

Mike Freeman

Years ago, mostly during the Bush administration’s rush to let industry lock up public lands, 65 oil and gas leases were illegally sold by the Bureau of Land Management on the White River National Forest.

The most visited forest in the country, the White River National Forest is treasured for world-renowned recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat, and relied upon by local communities, farmers and ranchers, sportsmen and, as the headwaters of the Colorado River, anyone in the Southwest who uses water.

The illegal leases were issued in some of the most unspoiled parts of the forest, including inventoried roadless areas and the Thompson Divide.

Then, several years ago, due to growing awareness of the illegalities, BLM decided to reconsider the leases.

Wilderness Workshop and our partners exposed the problems that drove this reconsideration, and we’ve consistently advocated for strong and meaningful protections for lands where the leases are located.

Now BLM is on the cusp of issuing a decision on these illegal leases. The new plan isn’t all bad; in fact, parts are pretty great. It would cancel 25 of the leases in the Thompson Divide, which is something for which we’ve fought hard for years to achieve and something that has unified local communities, as well as forest users from around the country.

Nonetheless, BLM’s new plan fails to protect this cherished national forest. For 27 leases — 40 percent of the lands involved — BLM plans to validate the illegal leases as they are, with no additional protections.

Essentially, BLM proposes to repeat the same errors made by the “lease before you look” Bush administration.

BLM’s current proposal also flies in the face of the decision by the manager of these lands, the U.S. Forest Service, about the appropriate “balance.” In its management plan for the White River National Forest, the Forest Service has concluded that significant additional protections are needed for wildlife, streams and pristine lands if oil and gas development is allowed.

BLM originally proposed to follow the Forest Service’s approach in its draft environmental analysis last winter, but BLM dropped that plan under heavy pressure from the oil and gas industry. That pressure has been constant throughout this process, but it really came to a head this past summer when BLM officials were called to testify before the House Natural Resources Committee and grilled in a kangaroo court by industry-friendly House Republicans.

The new plan is a major rollback from what BLM proposed just a few months ago, and it ignores the will of the public.

BLM received about 100,000 public comments during this review process, and more than 99 percent favored a plan that would protect forest resources. BLM’s new plan disregards that broad public support in an effort to placate a small fraction of the other 1 percent.

BLM’s new plan makes even less sense because protecting these treasured public lands would, according to BLM’s own analysis, have a negligible impact on regional oil and gas production. Oil and gas companies hold more than 4,300 federal oil and gas leases in Colorado covering millions of acres. These 27 leases are a drop in the bucket, representing a small fraction of 1 percent of the federal oil and gas available for development in Colorado.

The efforts of BLM and some other stakeholders to spin the agency’s new plan as “balanced” are simply wrong.

A balanced plan would require the protections needed to conserve streams, wildlife and soils, especially since even BLM admits these minimum protections won’t have any meaningful effect on gas production. A balanced plan would also give as much weight to the 99 percent of comments received as BLM gives to the industry comments. And a balanced plan would acknowledge that failing to add necessary protections to these illegal leases risks permanent damage to natural resources on our crown jewel national forest.

Wilderness Workshop will continue to fight for protection of the White River National Forest and the Thompson Divide.

That means supporting efforts to permanently protect the Divide from future leasing.

It also means holding the BLM accountable to the public and the law­.

Peter Hart is a staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop; Michael Freeman is a staff attorney at Earthjustice.

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